Wild Naliboki Winter Trip: two weeks in January 2020

Day 1: Friday 10/01

The first day starts great, we drive to see some bison, and there they are. Three males in the mist in an open field with old oaks, it is a beautiful sight. Afterwards, we start walking to check some camera traps next to a small canal. We stop at a former wolf den, while Vadim is explaining to us that there were wolf pups one spring in this den, we see two heads popping up from behind a ridge. Two wolves! They pass us at 15 to 20 metres, vanishing behind another ridge. As we are grinning at each other, the head of the male head pops up again to have a short look at us out of curiosity. We are astonished, the wolves were so close! What a magical start for this winter trip, seeing wolves at such a proximity while walking is a unique experience.

When we check the camera traps at the canal, we see a large pack of wolves passing there on the pictures, the pack of the female “Torn-ear”. Vadim explains to us that the two wolves we saw were probably a pair, having their territory close to the one of this pack, with the canal forming a border. The wolf pair came here to mark their territory border and hurried back when they ran into us.

On the camera, we also see many beautiful pictures of lynx, showing clearly the overlapping territories of lynx and wolf and the strong competition there must be between these carnivores. It is an unknown female, which Vadim decides to call “Pryhazhunia” or “Beautiful woman”.

To conclude the day, we visit an abandoned hamlet at the edge of a large swamp, where a bear has marked all electricity poles with scratches to clarify the place is his territory. There are no new marks on the poles, which makes sense since the bear should be in hibernation now. Three abandoned houses give the location a special atmosphere, Vadim remembers the people who lived there. At the other edge of the hamlet clearing, we spot a female elk who is looking at us from behind some shrubs. In twilight, we return to the cars and drive back to the field station, impressed by our first day in Naliboki.

Observations: 2 wolves, 8 roe deer, 3 bison, 4 elk, vole spec., white-tailed eagle, raven, Eurasian bullfinches

Day 2: Saturday 11/01

Today we see many birds: waxwings, Eurasian bullfinches, black grouse and rough legged buzzard. We make two walks in which Vadim shows us some more wolf dens, where he found wolf pups previous summer. He explains and shows us the different types of dens they use and how they frequently relocate the pups to prevent them from being found by other carnivores or trampled by ungulates.

When driving back, we pass on a newly established road and see plenty of lynx tracks in the dunes of excavated sand next to the road. Clearly, a mother was playing here with her kitten as we see big tracks and smaller ones, jumping up and down the dunes. Nearby, there are two pipes below the road, about which Vadim tells us, they are favourite hiding places and resting places of lynx. He decides to put three camera traps, one next to the sand with the tracks and one at each pipe. We will check them again next week, exciting!

Observations: elk, 7 roe deer, 2 red deer, waxwing, rough legged buzzard, 13 black grouse, yellowhammer, fieldfare, great spotted woodpecker, mistle thrush, raven

Day 3: Sunday 12/01

When we leave the field station in the morning, we see some elk in the pine forest, as we do almost every morning. Still, they are intriguing animals. Mostly, they see us when we see them, and they stare at us, just like we stare at them until they decide we look more dangerous than interesting and run off in their special hopping way. Further on the road we see a white-tailed eagle, which we had also seen before, but still, what a big and mighty bird! Today we make a long walk in swamp forests and richer deciduous forests. When we are walking along a small canal, three otters notice us and dive away in the reeds. Most of us saw them quite well before they were gone. Another mammal species that we have seen, and it is only our third day in Naliboki, fantastic!

We have late lunch in an open field with some giant oaks, it is a special place, but very windy today. After lunch, we drove through to an area with vast abandoned fields and got stuck twice in the peat. Luckily, we had many strong arms and a shovel to push the car back on track.

On the walk, we pass an area in which many trees have fallen, transforming the forest floor in a labyrinth of logs. Lynxes like these places, they love to walk on these fallen trees, are able to balance perfectly, and they like to hide in cosy spaces between the branches to rest or to mate. In the “tree fall thicket” we passed, Vadim showed us a well-hidden mating place of lynxes below standing spruces. For us, these tree fall thickets are quite difficult to cross, reminding us of our own clumsiness and increasing our marvel for these elegant forest cats. On one of the camera traps here, we see pictures of a female lynx and her kitten!

Observations: 3 otters, female elk, 20 roe deer, red squirrel, rough legged buzzard, white-tailed eagle, raven, mallard, white-headed long-tailed tit, Eurasian siskin, black woodpecker, great grey shrike

Day 4: Monday 13/01

Today we head out on a walk on our own close to the field station. Jan leads us through poor pine forests with blueberry and lots of moss in the understorey., in typical black alder swamp forest and through patches of old growth spruce forest. Suddenly, Jan, Hendrik and Katelijne see how two big red deer stags jump over a canal not so far in front of them. Somewhere in the silent spruce forest, we come across a chattering mixed flock of small songbirds. We have lunch at a big open spot and find some tracks of raccoon dogs in the sand. We get the feeling that here in Naliboki, there is always something to be found or seen. Han, Hendrik and Katelijne go watching for beaver in the twilight this evening, but only hear him diving away without having seen him. Jan has more luck and sees as beaver closer to the field station.

Observations: 2 male red deer, 2 roe deer, beaver, black woodpecker, coal tit, marsh tit, goldcrest, European crested tit, Eurasian siskins, Eurasian nuthatch, raven

Day 5: Tuesday 14/01

Today we explore a patch of old deciduous forest with many big oak and lime trees and a huge amount of dead wood on the forest floor. We are not used to so many lying logs on the forest floor, but these dead trees are very important habitat elements for many mammals, birds and other life in the forest. Furthermore, they add beauty, especially when covered with green mosses and other colourful lichen.

This is the territory of male lynx Vikienta and we go check some camera traps. Many male lynxes disappeared from the camera during the past month. Vadim thinks there might be a disease killing the adult males. We find a pine tree with fresh climbing marks of lynx and later on, we see a lynx on the camera pictures, but it is a female. No traces of Vikienta. When we arrive at “Vikienta’s house”, Hendrik spots a great grey owl flying away. We all look up and follow his low gliding flight through the trees. An extraordinary encounter with the “great grey ghost of the forest”. While Vadim and Jan arrange the camera traps, we go looking for the owl again, hoping to see a glimpse of his face. Unfortunately, we did not find him again but at least we can remember his mighty flight.

As usual, we enjoyed the lunch in the forest. This time, Vadim chose a very beautiful spot in a meander of the Biarezina river. He makes wonderful eggs on the fire, there exists no better lunch after walking in the forest!

After lunch, we set out to the “Sanne swamp”, or the swamp where Sanne once fell through the ice. We saw waxwings again and we found a bear hole, prepared for hibernation. Luckily, the bear chose another spot to hibernate this winter; otherwise, we probably would have waked him. We saw rough legged buzzard and white-tailed eagle again and enjoyed the view of the swamp forest from a beaver lodge. “This is the wilderness,” said Vadim to us, he was totally right.

Observations: 2 elk, rough legged buzzard, white-tailed eagle, great grey owl, waxwings, great and middle spotted and black woodpecker, Eurasian nuthatch

Day 6: Wednesday 15/01

Today we were welcomed by the sun. The forest looked even more beautiful! Before noon we walked through open birch forests and enjoyed the view of open marches. I forgot to change my walking shoes for boots in the morning and got quite nervous when we had to cross a deep canal. Luckily, Vadim dropped his backpack at the other side and returned to carry me over on his back, what a gentle man! Further on the walk, we encountered a latrine of raccoon dogs and Vadim told us about the continuous changes in mammal populations. The population density of the large carnivores, wolf and lynx, are closely linked to each other but also to the densities of the smaller burrowing carnivores, such as red fox, raccoon dog and badger. With the declining number of male lynxes, it is interesting to observe what will happen with the population densities of the other animals.

In the afternoon, there is another walk in an even more wet swamp area. I stay at a canal with Kris, to watch for beavers since I would not be able to join without getting wet feet. We do not see beaver, but we see a black woodpecker very close and a group of whooper swans. The group faced a difficult water crossing on their walk, and even though Vadim caught some water in his boots, they all succeeded to cross. The sun gave us a last show at sunset, painting the sky and birch trees with beautiful red and orange colours. At the drive to the field station, Sanne spotted a white-tailed eagle again, but this time very close so we could take a good look at him.

Observations: 3 elk, roe deer, vole spec., 2 white-tailed eagles, hazel grouse, raven, 6 whooper swans, great spotted and black woodpecker

Day 7: Thursday 16/01

We set out to see some bison again, but encounter many wolf tracks and many fresh wolf scat on the road. We are in the territory of this large wolf pack of “Torn-ear” again and it looks like they passed on this road recently. At the edge of the big fields we notice a large group of red deer, suddenly running off into the forest. Are they scared away by some wolves? Going around the corner, we meet the three big male bison again, which we saw the first day, but this time they are much closer. Then, we find a wolf-kill next to the road. A red deer was killed by the wolves some time ago, the tracks we saw of the pack undoubtedly show that the pack is around and possibly still close. A camera trap is fixed to take pictures of the wolves if they were to come back. At a distance, we see a white-tailed eagle again and some raven, they know there is a carrion here.

After lunch we check some more camera traps. On top of a badger set, we see a lynx was photographed when he was teasing the badgers. The pictures were taken only 50 minutes before we arrived there! The lynx must be still very close, how exciting to stand on a place where this lynx walked not even one hour ago. Later, we go check the camera traps at the pipes, which we installed earlier this week, and we find beautiful pictures of the same lynx at one of the pipes. It turns out to be Yuri, one of the missing male lynxes. What a joy to see he is alive and looks great. Today is therefore called “Yuri day”!

We wait for twilight and play wolf howling from a recorder. First, we only hear dogs barking, but then, yes, we hear howling wolves. We try again at another location and hear them again, now the whole pack is howling but from a larger distance. What an experience!

Observations: elk, roe deer, herd of 50 red deer, 3 bison, mountain hare, wolf howling, spotted nutcracker, raven, rough-legged buzzard, black grouse, white-tailed eagle, whooper swans

Day 8: Friday 17/01

Today Vadim and Ira go to Minsk and take Hendrik with them, who is going home. Sad to say goodbye to a group member only halfway of the trip, but we had a lovely time together and part with good memories. We rest before noon and take a walk in the afternoon from the field station to a large opening. However, we do not see many animals, except for a great spotted woodpecker. Sanne and Jan started working today, there task is to look for dead lynxes by carefully inspecting lynx habitats such as dense thickets and treefall. If they could find one, it might be easier to understand why so many adult male lynxes are disappearing. Normally, the fieldwork consists of following lynx tracks in the snow, however, because of the very warm temperatures, there is no snow yet and there will probably be no snow during our trip in Naliboki. Unfortunately, the weather cannot be ordered.

Day 9: Saturday 18/01

Today, I join Jan and Sanne in their quest for male lynxes. This morning, we see two elk from the car and stop to look at them. It appears to be a mother with calf, the mother comes from behind a shrub and puts herself protectively before her calve while looking conspicuously at us. The motherly protection is a beautiful sight to start the day with. In the forest, we did not find any dead lynxes, but even better, we found a lynx on the camera at a large pine tree. This tree is used as “call tree” or “climbing tree”, the males climb these trees to make territorial calls in spring and summer. Usually, these climbing trees are the biggest trees around, providing also a great overview of the surrounding area and a good place to spot prey. At the next location, we found fresh climbing marks on two other large pine trees and tracks in the sand. In the evening, Vadim confirms that the lynx on the camera, and perhaps the one leaving the tracks, must be Vikienta, another missing male. It is such a relief to find an adult male lynx alive! Unfortunately, he looks quite skinny, so not a good sign.

Han, Katelijne and Kris went out with Vadim and his son Boles today. They had the luck to run into wolves for the second time this trip! In the morning, they were driving and suddenly two wolves passed the road, some 50 meters in front of them. It seemed like the wolves paid no attention to the car and they were walking through the field next to the road. For at least five minutes, Vadim, Katelijne, Han and Kris could watch them while they were clearly at ease. Another extraordinary day!

Observations: elk, 2 wolves, 11 roe deer, black grouse, hazel grouse, 2 rough-legged buzzards, 4 raven, 4 whooper swans, hawfinches, grey wagtail.

Day 10: Sunday 19/01

Today we went all together into the field, joined by Maximilian and Franzie from Germany. We were happy to see a thin layer of snow this morning and right after leaving the field station we already found wolf tracks on the road! Vadim took us to a very large “tree fall” area to check some camera traps. We saw a male and female lynx together on the pictures without kittens. Vadim tells us that previously it was thought that lynx are mainly solitary animals, whereas now it is getting clear that sometimes they live in pairs and mostly in family groups. Mothers with kittens are often accompanied by subadult lynxes, which increases the hunting success of both subadult and the female lynx. It is not clear yet what the role of the male lynxes is, but Vadim noticed that the males also spend a lot of time in close proximity of their females with kittens in summer, and make territorial calls during summer to defend the territory of their female and kittens. Very interesting!

Further in the tree fall area, Vadim shows us two wolf dens which are exceptionally close to each other. If the pressure on the wolf population rises, it is possible that more females in one wolf pack get pups. The females, however, give birth to their pups in separate dens, which are usually still about 1 kilometre from each other. These two dens were so close to each other because the two females were apparently mother and daughter.

At the end of the day, Vadim leaves us at a place where we could easily spot beavers. We were lucky and saw one beaver, spotted by Katelijne, but he dove very quickly below the water surface, so we only caught a glimpse of it.

Observations: roe deer, 2 herds of red deer, 16 bison, elk with calf, beaver, 2 rough-legged buzzards, common buzzard, 3 great grey shrikes, raven, pseudoscorpion

Day 11: Monday 20/01

Today, Katelijne, Han, Kris and me went with Vadim to the other field station in Naliboki forest, while Sanne, Jan, Maximiliaan and Franzie stay at the Naust ecostation to continue their lynx quest. We visit a very beautiful piece of old growth forest with dried annual honesty (Lunaria annua) at the forest floor. At one of the camera traps, we find a female lynx with kitten on the pictures! Further, we come across a beehive that was roved by a pine marten, it is really cool to see the hole in the tree where the beehive must have been and the leftovers of the honey structure spread around the tree. Giant oaks such as this one provide habitat for so many species, they are truly an ecosystem on its own. The Siniawka research station is situated in the Nieman valley and surrounded by similar giant oaks and plenty of stork nests. According to Vadim, in summer, it looks like an airport over there. After a rough, but delicious dinner cooked by Vadim and some of his compelling stories we go to bed.

Observations: 23 roe deer, elk, red fox, white-tailed eagle, rough-legged buzzard, buzzard, raven, yellowhammer, jay, 20 whooper swans, house sparrow, Eurasian bullfinch.

Day 12: Tuesday 21/01

Today we get up early and visit two small patches of old growth forest amidst agricultural fields. We see a giant dead oak, which was often used by a male lynx to call and to watch for prey previous spring. We make some additional walks to visit some badger sets and encounter many wolf scratching marks on the road. It seems that we find ourselves at a border between territories again and that there are many wolves in the area. We gradually make our way back to the Naust ecostation, but are not able to see many animals in the field since there is a very strong wind blowing across the open. Vadim leaves Kris, Han and me at twilight at the beaver spot again close to the field station. This time, Kris notices the beaver, and we can take a close look at him without him noticing us. They lie so quietly in the water, they look just like a piece of wood. It is real fun to see him floating and nibbling on real pieces of wood until he disappears under water.

Observations: 20 roe deer, 13 bison, 2 elk, beaver, hen harrier, mallards, 5 whooper swans, rough-legged buzzard, raven

Day 13: Wednesday 22/01

For the last day in the field, we go again all together. We go to check the camera traps we checked on the first day, where we saw both wolf and lynx on the pictures. This time, it is not the large pack on the pictures, but a pair of wolves, namely, the pair we saw on the first day! It kind of completes the circle of our trip. Furthermore, again there is a lynx on the pictures so these places are still visited by both large carnivores. We take our time to enjoy Vadim’s eggs during lunch for the last time this trip and after lunch we split. Vadim, Sanne, Kris, Maximiliaan and Franzie check out another part of the old forest nearby. They are still in the forest when a short but strong storm appears. Rain and snow come down accompanied by strong gusts of wind and the trees start cracking. Luckily, they were not injured by falling trees and only had to deal with a shot of adrenaline. Jan took Han, Katelijne and me to another part of the old forest here next to the Biarezina river. Katelijne stayed at a beautiful meander to watch for otters, while Han, Jan and me went to check the camera traps. We did not find lynxes on the pictures and were done quit fast. We reached the car before the storm came along. After the storm we drove to the pipes to check these cameras again, but there was nothing on it. While we were waiting for the other group to arrive there, Katelijne spotted a black wolfish animal on the road. It turned out to be a dog (or was it a hybrid wolf?), but the thought of seeing another wolf during this trip also gave us some adrenaline. When the other group arrives, we exchange our stories and, tired but happy, we drive back home together.

In the evening we raise our glasses together with Vadim, we thank him to guide us around this extraordinary Naliboki forest and to show us so many wonderful animals. He shares some more of his stories with us and we look into the camera pictures of the last few days together. It feels hard to say goodbye to him and this special Wild Naliboki forest. Some of us will be back for sure!

Observations: 3 elk, 3 red deer, 8 roe deer, white-headed long-tailed tits

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